When reality is just a word

“A Scanner Darkly”

Warner Independent Pictures

Directed and written for the screen by Richard Linklater

Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder

Opened July 14, 2006

Rated R/100 minutes

Three-and-a-half out of four stars

Hollywood’s love affair with the brilliant, prose-challenged science-fiction prophet Philip K. Dick has generated such cinematic genius as “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall” and “Minority Report.”

Most people have no idea who the hell Dick is. But PKD, as his fans lovingly refer to him, laid the conceptual foundation for much of modern speculative fiction and has planted the bulbs of unrest and paranoia deep in the fibers of countercultural America. His reality-warping, starkly moral caveats still resonate as alarming, immediate and provocative.

Director Richard Linklater’s vision of “A Scanner Darkly” almost perfectly mimics its source in both style and philosophical scope. It is the first film to channel Dick’s soul.

Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on one’s tastes.

“Scanner” is talky, distant and convoluted. In this Dickian near future, nothing is ever as it seems, and one is never certain exactly how anything is supposed to seem. The surreally gorgeous interpolated rotoscopic animation (the pioneering animation overlay that Linklater also used in “Waking Life”) creates a subtly alienating ambience. Gaping story maws remain gaping at the end of the movie. Half-baked philosophical ideas abound.

But this is all part of the fun. “A Scanner Darkly” tacitly asks a slew of questions and gives only cryptic half-answers that are as vague and evasive as the animation itself. It is up to viewers to come to conclusions-if they can-about the nature of reality, whether drug treatments are worse than the drugs themselves, the apparently fascist underpinnings of governmental anti-drug programs and the virtual nonexistence of sanity.

Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, a strung-out junkie who may or may not be an undercover cop and who may or may not be spying on his other junkie friends, Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder).

Story, in the conventional linear sense, doesn’t apply to “Scanner.” Scenes shift perspective without warning. Sequence seems to be a foreign concept. Ernie, James, Donna and Bob mostly just trade impeccably written dialogue (courtesy of Linklater’s stellar script), get wasted on a drug called Substance D and act frenetic and paranoid. They don’t know what’s real and neither do we. Watching “A Scanner Darkly” is as disorienting for audiences as quotidian life is for the film’s characters.

Linklater elicits excellent performances from the hit-or-miss Ryder and Reeves, but Downey Jr. and Harrelson radiate jittery brilliance as the hilarious hyper-intellectual motor mouth James and high-strung burnout Ernie.

Alternately heart-rending and comical, ambiguous and crystal-clear, “Scanner” is ultimately just a story about addicts from the paranoid, skewed perspective of an addict. Strip away the science fiction-y bells and whistles, and it’s a blatant appeal for tolerance and compassion. After all, addiction statistics are steadily rising, and at a certain point, blame is the least of our concerns.